Saturday, December 26, 2009

Spices and Black Tea Production in Southwestern India


So today is Christmas Eve and we are far removed from the usual Christmas frenzy, which is quite nice, though we miss our families and the usual festivities at home. It is so nice to not be bombarded with Christmas songs, the materialistic aspect of Christmas, the pre-holiday stress and the Christmas trees/Santa Clauses everywhere. (Sorry, I guess that’s only how I feel, because as I write this Tal is listening to Christmas songs from the soundtrack of the movie “Elf” on his ipod). 
In order to “spice” up our Christmas (meaning Christmas Eve and Christmas day), we have placed the following on our agenda: visits to the spice garden and a tea plantation, an elephant ride, a home cooked Indian meal and a typical Indian massage. Maybe we should make it a tradition!

Today (the 24th) was a very informative day and we wanted to share what we learned. We first visited a spice garden where we got to see, touch, and taste spices that we usually only know from a glass container or a can at the local supermarket. Our guide was amused by our ignorance of recognizing these very common spices in their natural environment, but was happy to share with us both the name and use of each herb/spice.

First – pepper. After years of knowing pepper only as a basic on the spice rack, seeing how it actually grows was very enlightening and exciting to me.
These bush-like pepper plants, as seen below, do not stand on their own, but rather find a tree to wrap themselves around in order to gain height and spread out. 

IMG_2368 Pepper

The pepper kernels grow in a string/cluster form (see below). One can easily taste the pepper by chewing one of these kernels.


The following is a vanilla bean. We have now learned of two ways that one can extract vanilla flavor.  We were told last year during an orchid exhibit at the Bronx Botanical Garden in NYC, that vanilla is extracted from a specific orchid. The guide here in Kerala was unfamiliar with any other type of vanilla plant outside of the bean seen below.

IMG_2374 Vanilla bean

The next spice is taken from the bark of this tree. It can be tasted when chewing the bark, but it is a very faint taste and so it was hard for us to guess. It is cinnamon.

IMG_3748 Cinnamon

For everyone who has never seen how pineapples grow, this next picture is hopefully as exciting as it was to me the first time around. This is not the first time I have seen it, but it still gets me excited.  Perhaps because I enjoy pineapples so much or perhaps because the plant seems so quaint.

At the same time, the pineapple plant somehow appears to me as if it should be poisonous. Perhaps I feel like this because it reminds me of a very poisonous berry in Switzerland that looks equally as inviting, but is in fact deadly. (Mami, Du waisch wellas, gell!) Luckily pineapples are not and they are particularly delicious here.

IMG_2367 pineapple

Guess what this is…


It is coffee beans laid out to dry before they get roasted. The best coffee in India, the Arcadia, gets exported all over the world. Coffee consumption is getting more popular in India, especially in the northern cities like Delhi, but in most parts of the county, tea is still the preferred beverage.

For all chocolate lovers, the following picture shows a cacao plant. When the fruit turns yellow (as seen below) it is ready for harvesting. Inside the fruit are many beans that are dried and roasted to produce the chocolate so many of us love.

IMG_2377 Cacao

And now on to a non-spice tree, the rubber tree. In order to extract the rubber from the bark, the bark is cut with a knife. The trick to this is to not cut too deeply into the tree, because once the wood of the tree is touched, the bark will no longer yield any rubber. So it has to be handled very carefully. The cutting can only take place between the cooler hours of 5–7:30 am, after which the bark will no longer discharge any rubber (due to the rise of temperature).

IMG_2380 Rubber tree

The picture below shows how the rubber gets collected in a little container as it runs along the cut in the bark.


This is all from the spice garden. From there we went to one of the many tea plantations here in Kerala.


First a few facts:
- tea is mostly harvested in the south and northeast of India
- tea consumption in India in 2008 was 701g/person, which means  about 2 cups of tea a day per person.  
- tea production in India in 2008 was 980 million kg
- the tea plant is actually a tree, but is kept as a bush for better harvesting
- tea bushes live for 100-200 years. But after 50 years of harvesting, the plant needs to be replanted to improve its productivity.

Below is a picture of the tea plantations in Kerala. 


One more…


And one more….


At the tea plantation we visited we learned about the harvesting and process of black tea. We wish we had pictures of all these steps but were not allowed to take pictures inside the factory. Hopefully the words describe it well enough.

Tea  is harvested in a variety of ways. Originally it was hand collected, but with the growing demand , it is now mainly harvested with large machines. It is interesting to note is that tea does not have a specific harvesting season, as it can be harvested 26-38 times/year.

The tea leaves are dried in a trough for 12-14 days.

At this point the leaves are being cut into small pieces.

Then they are crushed into even smaller pieces. It is at this point that the leaves change their color from green on the darker brown/black color.

Crush, Tear, Curl
During this process the leaves are cut even further until they appear like a mushy paste.

For 90 minutes the leaves are placed in a large metal tube where air, along with some water, are blown in to cause fermentation.  

Then it is moved to a large machine where it is left to dry for 15 minutes at 135 degree Celsius. During this process the remaining waste (stems, fibers etc.) is removed.

Further cleaning is performed.  

The tiny particles of tea are now separated into kernels and powder. The kernels are used for lighter tea and the powder for stronger tea.

Some more cleaning is performed.

Final cleaning
There cannot be enough cleaning going on for some good tea!

Tea tasting
Specialized workers taste the tea for taste, flavor, aroma, strength, etc. They do not drink the tea, but rather gargle it for 10 sec and then spit it out. During this short process they can tell if there are any defects with the tea.

From the local tea plantation it gets sent to larger distributors, who then sell the tea worldwide.

More on Christmas in the next blog…


  1. This is truly amazing! Wish we could have been with you. That's certainly not going to happen every year! Love it! Totally fascinating1

  2. Wow, That's just like I went to a class on spices! I loved hearing all that trivia...and seeing the great pictures that go right along with it. Thanks guys! I also LOVE the elephant picture, and hearing about your Christmas. What an adventure.